by Gina Hamilton
The Color Purple, running through August 6 at Maine State Music Theatre, is the jewel — dare we say amethyst? — in this year’s crown.
As anyone who has read Alice Walker’s novel, or seen the film knows, the story is very dark for the first two thirds of the show. Purple is the rarest color in nature and it is a joy to see it; in the church, it is also the color of pain, mourning, and watchful anticipation. All of these things are married in the story “The Color Purple”. It is the story of child sexual abuse, forced separation between the young mother and child, and the sexual trafficking of the same young girl, forcing her to marry a sadistic monster while her sister flees overseas to avoid becoming another victim. And yet, both girls, Celie (Jaden Dominique) and Nettie (Tavia Rivee), in their later years, find themselves not only content with their lives, but in love with life and all that it offers.
Formidable director E. Faye Butler pulls absolutely no punches. There is no sugarcoating this story. This is not a musical to bring the kids to. It is as bleak and dark as it sounds. And yet, the growth from child victim Celie to the fulfilled, talented, beautiful woman Celie becomes is truly a spiritual transformation.
The child Calie is raped and impregnated by the man she believes to be her father (Korie Lee Blossey), her children are stolen from her, and then she is forced to marry against her will, to submit to a man (Mister, played by Kelvin Rolston Jr.) who has no regard for her, who attempts to rape her sister, and who prevents her from communicating with the only person she has ever loved. She assumes that Nettie has died, because even her letters have been stolen.
The woman Calie is confident, a creative businesswoman, a mother of two young adults, a devoted sister, and a respected and respectful lover. But the road to transcendence is long, sometimes very painful, and surprising.
Nettie, however, has embarked on a new adventure. She is serving as governess for the preacher’s wife’s children – actually Celie’s children (Mikayla Jane and Willie Clyde Beaton II) who were adopted by the couple – and she leaves with them for Africa. Because Nettie’s letters aren’t getting to her, Celie knows none of this. Mister has been stealing them, just another indignity Celie is forced to endure.
When Mister’s first and seriously alcoholic and drug addicted lover, Shug Avery (DeQuinna Moore), arrives to sing at his son Harpo’s (played by Lawrence Flowers) juke dive, Shug takes a shine to Celie, who is helping her recover. Only then does Celie realize she is being mistreated. Harpo’s wife Sofia (Maiesha McQueen) had tried to tell her, but Celie wasn’t ready to hear it. Shug finds the letters, and gives them to Celie, and the darkness in her soul finally lifts.
Nettie and her two children were in Africa, Celie learns, and also learns that ‘Pa’ wasn’t her true father. Her real father had died, leaving her the house she grew up in and a store in town. Upon her abuser’s death, Celie becomes a woman of means, and is able to navigate her own future. But before she was ready to take that step, she moved with Shug and her husband to Memphis, and began some healing of her own.
Mister also does some examination of his conscience, and doesn’t like what he sees. He tries to make amends in the town for the way he has behaved over the years, and becomes a kinder, gentler man. When Celie returns, she moves into her own house, sets up a store where she makes pants for women, and learns that she and Mister can be friends (but no more than that), that she is beautiful and has talents of her own, and that family is forever. Through an intervention by Mister, Nettie and the children get back into the United States, and Celie has the chance, late in her life, to rebuild her family.
Jaden Dominique, who is only a sophomore in college, was brilliant as Calie, as she moves from innocence to awakening sexuality with Shug, to personal and professional growth, and finally, to the complete woman that was hidden within the subservient creature she had been as Mister’s wife. Also bright were other women in the story – Maeisha McQueen’s portrayal of Sofia is balm to women’s battered souls, especially in this difficult hour, and DeQuinna Moore’s Shug is a complicated portrait of a woman who is tied to her own carnal needs, but is willing to lend a lifeline to other women.
The real star of the show, however, was the direction of E. Faye Butler, who brilliantly brought all these characters to the road of self-actualization, and even redemption.
See The Color Purple if you can. Shows run until August 6. Visit MSMT.org for more information.